At Home Ashore

The family is attacking shore-based life with the same gusto with which we explored the wilds of newfoundland and the shallows of San blas.

family cruising
The Zartmans onboard Ganymede nearing their final destination in Bristol, RI.Green Brett

When I first started building Ganymede, our Cape George 31, in our California backyard almost 10 years ago, it was with a sense of urgency. My wife, Danielle, and I wanted to get back to sea, of course, but we wanted especially to do so before anything could happen that would prevent it. I need not have worried, since the way to accomplish anything is to really want it and to pursue it with singleness of purpose, which is what we did.

If we had wanted excuses to not go cruising, we could have found them aplenty: a nine-month-old child in diapers, the apparent folly of cramming five people on a 31-foot boat, the fact that we had less than $5,000 in the world. There will always be ready excuses for those who need them; for the determined, however, there will always also be a way, even if things turn out far differently than could have been foreseen.

I only mention this now as a contrast to the relative ease with which we gave up full-time cruising, after having reached and explored coastlines running from northern California to Panama and the Canadian Maritimes.

We had a choice before us as we followed the fall colors down the Hudson River on our way south from a big summer cruise that began in Newport, Rhode Island, taking us around Newfoundland, along the coast of Quebec, and up the St. Lawrence River. We could carry along southward in and out of the Intracoastal Waterway, for a winter in the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, or we could hook a left at the Battery in New York Harbor, transit Long Island Sound, and be back in Newport in time to settle in for a cozy winter under a shrink-wrap canopy.

We had enough money, certainly, to carry on south. Though we didn’t have enough for opulence, we have set out on bigger trips with less in our wallets. But something made us turn left instead, despite knowing that we were blowing off what was probably a last golden chance at an easy Caribbean cruise. Certainly, after the rigors of fighting our way up the St. Lawrence against contrary currents and strong fall winds, to amble down the ICW would be a walk in the park, and if need be, St. Thomas has work in season for seafaring folk. Perhaps it was that we were no longer looking for an easy cruise, or maybe all the hard cruising we’d just done had made us want a decent rest. I do know that if continuing south was what we had really wanted, we would have done it, even though the boat was getting palpably too small for our family of five.

What we really wanted, I realized, and therefore what we did, was to return to Newport, straight back into the same marina we’d sailed out of early in the spring, and begin the long process of settling in. Though it would be nearly a year before we could afford to move off the boat, we began storing things ashore to make more room on board — first in a heap of waterproof plastic bins stacked on the dock, and then, later, in a rented storage unit.

One of the ineffable benefits of living on land (or at least near it and in one place) is the ability to have things. Nice things. Many things. Useful, pretty, nostalgic, breakable things. As much as some people get down on the ownership of stuff, as much as they say that your possessions will own you, there’s a usefulness in having the luxury to accumulate.

family cruising
The girls will have plenty more space on shore, but the bunks for their room are reminiscent of life at sea.Ben Zartman

For more than four years, we had rigorously denied ourselves any but the bare necessities that would fit into the boat. Many a time I passed over a great deal at a used bookstore for lack of room to keep even one more volume, and many another time I’d made do with a scanty supply of tools because I couldn’t carry every single proper one. Extra clothes had to be kept to a bare minimum, and kitchen gear carefully selected for versatility.

With a storage unit onshore, all that changed. Every occasional-use necessity left the boat (fenders, storm sails and hawser, extra oars, hoses), and suddenly Ganymede had elbowroom! Things could be set down! The locker behind the closet, long inaccessible, was full of stuff we’d thought was lost! Beyond that, I could now own a chop saw for cutting firewood; keep leftover paint, resin and chemicals ashore; and, when Danielle brought back from a visit to California all the stuff we hadn’t been able to give away, throw out or sell when we left, why, there was room for all that too.

Even so, by the end of another summer of living on a mooring, it was evident that our days of seafaring as a family on Ganymede were over. It would have been a matter of wanting it to an unhealthy degree to continue living aboard as the girls increased in size, dunnage and appetite. If that hadn't been enough, they began needing more privacy, and the head was in great demand as they grew too tall to easily change inside their tiny aft cabin. And so, one year ago as I write this, we moved into a rented apartment.

Of course, it took a while to get used to. At first I kept a flashlight by my bed, forgetting that lights were just a switch away. Danielle had to remind me that we had a shower right in the house, and that it didn’t cost $2 a pop to clean up at the marina. Washing up was no longer a two-hour event, and the dishes could be left to dry without being stumbled over.

Even better was a washer and dryer in the basement, and a small garage all my own in which to do all the projects you simply can’t do in the cockpit or on a dock. The girls have shown an interest in gardening that I had no idea existed, and all their various crafts and jigsaw puzzles now need not be done in one sitting and stowed before supper.

We’re still living small by normal standards: The apartment has two bedrooms and one bath, and as yet we have only one car. But the family is attacking shore-based life with the same gusto with which we explored the wilds of Newfoundland and the shallows of San Blas.

It’s not necessarily better, but surprisingly, it also isn’t worse. It’s what’s right for us now, just like cruising was the thing to do while we still could. Of course we miss the cruising lifestyle, and spend winter evenings designing the schooner that will fit us all and have two heads — the one we’d like to build someday — but the comfort, ease and convenience of life ashore, surrounded by everything we need, is feeling pretty good.

To everything there is a season, and the passing of one time of life is less to be regretted than remembered, like a golden aria whose glory still remains after the radio has been switched off. Will we ever get to cruise again? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we did cruise, with all our hearts, as best we could, and it was wonderful beyond all expectation.

— Ben Zartman, Bristol, Rhode Island